Photographer Dennis Biela took more than 45,000 photographs while documenting the Blue Angels’ 70th anniversary season for the Smithsonian Institution. Selecting his 30 favorites for a special exhibit at the National Naval Aviation Museum wasn’t easy.
“There is so much stuff, so many images,” said the veteran photographer who has traveled the air show circuit with the team since April.
COMING SUNDAY: The U.S. Navy Blue Angels flight demonstration team is marking its 70th anniversary. Pilots from the seven decades talk about how the team has changed over the years and share stories about their individual eras with the team. From the team’s combat experiences in the Korea War, to Vietnam Era protests, “Top Gun” fame in the 1980s and the shock of Sept. 11, 2001, the pilots talk about how events shaped the team and how the team helped to shape naval aviation.
His images will go on display at the museum starting Monday in advance of the Blue Angels homecoming air show at Pensacola Naval Air Station on Friday and Saturday.
Biela, who is an experienced aerobatic pilot, has spent years photographing various aviation-related subjects for magazines and for museums.
He met with Blue Angels leaders during the team’s winter training in El Centro, California, to pitch his idea of capturing the 70th anniversary season for the Smithsonian.
“I talked to the boss (Cmdr. Ryan Bernacchi), they approved the project and provided the access. It’s been an interesting journey,” said Biela, who has photographed the team at 14 different show sites since April.
Even though the team was performing at different locations, Biela said it became a challenge to capture unique images from show to show.
“I was constantly trying to find a different vantage point, a different perspective. I looked at everything with an artistic eye and tried to find images that people will remember,” he said.
Biela was on his way to meet the team at the Smyrna, Tennessee, air show June 2 when Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss lost control of his No. 6 solo jet and crashed. Biela opted not to include photographs related to to the fatal crash in his exhibit.
“I shot some stuff during that time but none of that is part of the show out of respect for the families and the team,” he said.
Biela said the crash changed his relationship with the team.
“I found myself grieving with them. That was surprising because I am supposed to be the guy on the outside documenting what they are doing,” he said.
Biela also grew close with some of the Blue Angels die-hard fans.
One couple offered him a lawn chair and shared a picnic with him on their front lawn when he stopped to photograph the jets flying over their neighborhood near a show site. Another family stopped and watched the show with him on a roadside where people had gathered to watch a different show.
His images will be part of the Smithsonian collection and will be included in a Smithsonian Air and Space Magazine story on the Blue Angels’ 70th anniversary.
The experience gave him an even deeper appreciation of the highly skilled Navy and Marine pilots, he said.
“I think the toughest thing for them is that they are constantly training. They are constantly looking at how they can fly better, how they can be better at what they do. They are filmed and critiqued after every show,” he said.
Lt. Joe Hontz, the public affairs officer for the Blue Angels, said the team was excited to have the anniversary season documented for the Smithsonian by Biela.
Hontz said Biela captured the emotions of the team.
“His ability to capture images allowed for an in-depth look at the team as a whole,” he said.